First European team sport involved
thousands in a bloody free-for-all

By Dominic Sutherland
BBC Timewatch

Think of a jousting tournament and you're likely to think of gleaming knights, splintered lances and well-dressed countesses - the triumph of good over evil, the polite ritual displays of arms at a joust.

But while jousting was popular in medieval Europe, it originated as the curtain-opener to a far more brutal affair.

This was the melee tournament - a brutal free-for-all with few rules - designed very much as a preparation for war.

It was a fearsome spectacle - in which many hundreds, sometimes thousands of knights clashed in a mass charge between opposing teams with lances lowered.

Knights fell to the ground, lances splintered, horses reared. And the mass mock-battle could be fought over a vast area including woods, hills and rivers

These tournaments which were in many ways the first European team sport originated in the year 1100 in Northern France.

English accounts mention "supporters" and even "armchair warriors" who lounged around at matches.

Heralds able to decipher who was who from the symbols and colours on their shields and surcoats, acted as commentators.

It was a chance for knights who fought campaigns together to hone their combat skills, but it was also an opportunity for young knights to blood themselves.

"It was said that you weren't truly a knight until you had felt your teeth crack and your blood flow," says Dr Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection,

"And both those things were going to happen in a tournament. Even the most skilled martial artist would get banged up - broken arms and broken shoulder blades."

Path to riches

While this realistic practice for war was dangerous, it was rarely lethal.
Armour helped prevent serious injury, but what really kept the knights from killing each other was that they were more interested in capturing their opponents.
A knight who was captured would forfeit his armour and have to pay a substantial ransom to his captor.
Capturing high-ranking nobles was immensely profitable so being a successful fighter was a fast route to riches.
The Greatest Knight
Without doubt the star attraction of the 12th century tournament scene was William Marshal.

Born in England in 1146 and brought up in Normandy, the son of an impoverished noble, he joined the French tournament circuit at the age of 23.

It is thought he was six feet (1.83m) tall making him a giant by medieval standards. He was soon forging a fearsome reputation, capturing three knights in his first melee.

They put every effort they could into doing him harm and capturing him, but they dared not stand there and take his blows
Biography of William Marshal

He was an exceptional horseman, known for a tactic of grabbing another rider's reins away and dragging him out of the melee and forcing him to surrender.

Detailed accounts of his exploits survive because of a biography written shortly after his death.

"They put every effort they could into doing him harm and capturing him, but they dared not stand there and take his blows."

"Many gave him a wide berth, yet many a blow struck with sword and mace were directed at William Marshal, squashing his helmet completely and reaching through to his very scalp."

After one melee, William Marshal went missing, delaying the presentation of his prize as best fighter. They eventually found him in the blacksmith's with his head in the anvil as his helmet was beaten back into shape so he could take off his armour.

Celebrity status

As an international sport, the melee tournament attracted big money, and from the early 1170s to 1182 William's patron was Henry the Young King, son of Henry II and they were fixtures on the tournament fields of Flanders and France.

If Henry was the Roman Abramovich of the 12th century, William Marshal was its David Beckham.

When in 1183 Philip of Flanders bought the services of William Marshal, who had temporarily fallen out with Henry, the price for his transfer was a quarter of the rents of the Flemish city of Saint-Omer.

As medieval historian, Professor David Crouch puts it: "It is almost impossible to put a modern figure on that, but it's a lot. You're talking millions. You're talking about a deal that even David Beckham would widen his eyes at."

Besides profit, the international tourney circuit had also made Marshal a celebrity.

Wherever he went, counts, dukes and barons clamoured to approach him and "the Marshal", as he became known, used his reputation to good advantage.

In 1189 Richard I arranged for Marshal to marry one of the richest heiresses in England, Isabel de Clare. Through this marriage he became Earl of Pembroke, and gained large estates in England, Wales, Normandy and Ireland.

Regent of England

Marshal had risen through the tournament melee to be its most famous knight and was now also one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom.

In 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, it was William Marshal who dealt with the barons on his behalf.

When King John died, Marshal became Regent of England, protector of the nine year old king, Henry III.

It was then, in his 70's, that his tournament training paid its final dividend when he led English forces against the French-led army who were camped at Lincoln.

"The Marshal" of course was victorious. Had he lost, England would almost certainly have fallen to France.

When he died two years later, his biographer laments that the huge melee tournaments of the 12th and early 13th centuries had began to lose their popularity with the emergence of smaller-scale and more theatrical jousting events.

And it is these tournaments, perpetuated by the imagery in films from El Cid to A Knight's Tale that have survived in the popular conscience while the melee has melted into history.

Timewatch: The Greatest Knight may be seen on BBC iPlayer